Poison Ivy Look-a-Likes

Not every plant that has three leaves is poison ivy. There are many common plants that look an awful lot like it, though, and this can sometimes cause unecesary stress. Learning to identify look-a-like plants can also greatly sharpen your poison ivy ID skills since you'll learn what poison ivy does not look like. Some of the more common confusing plants are below. Click any photo for a larger view.

By the way, unless you're absolutely certain what you're touching is safe, don't touch it. Better safe than sorry!

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Virginia Creeper

Virginia creeper is a plant that is native to eastern North America. It will climb and crawl just like poison ivy and can grow in sun or shade. It is generally considered harmless, although some people are very allergic to the oxalate crystals in the vines, so be careful if you decide to pull it out of your garden. One thing is for sure: it does not contain the same urushiol oil as poison ivy and brushing up against the leaves should not be a problem.

How to tell that it's not poison ivy: Always start by counting the leaflets. Virginia Creeper will have 3, 5, or 7 leaflets (occasionally more) which means it's not poison ivy.

In the photo on the left, notice that the vine has a leaf that is a group of 3 leaflets. This is what generally throws people off and makes them think it is poison ivy. However, that leaf is attached to a vine that has other leaves growing on it that have 4 or 5 leaflets, so it can't be poison ivy.

Virginia Creeper crawls along the ground, which is probably how it got its name. It does not stand up and form bushes the way poison ivy can. It will crawl along until it finds something to climb on, and then it will start to climb and latch onto the surface with a vine that looks similar to poison ivy's.

Box Elder Tree

Box Elder is a tree, but when it is young, it fools a lot of people with its 3 leaves and red stems.

How to tell that it's not poison ivy: The biggest giveaway with box elder is how the leaves are arranged on the stem. Box elder leaves are arranged opposite each other on the stem, therefore, it can't be poison ivy since ivy leaves are alternate. (See How to Identify Poison Ivy and scroll down for the diagrams.)

Notice in the photo on the right how the leaves are right across from each other - that is "opposite". If you stand over top of a young tree and look straight down, you should see the leaves forming a plus sign "+" pattern. If you look straight down on poison ivy, you will not see any kind of pattern.

As box elder trees get older, they will have 3 to 5 leaves instead of just 3. The minute you see more than 3 leaves, you can't be looking at poison ivy.

Maple Tree Seedlings

Anyone with a mature maple tree nearby knows you can be practically overrun with seedlings each spring. The seedlings can confuse at first glace, but if you look closely, you can quickly eliminate them as poison ivy seedlings.

How to tell that it's not poison ivy: Look closely at the leaves in the photos above. Not only are they one leaf as opposed to having three leaflets, but they are arraged opposite as opposed to alternate.

Blackberries and Raspberry Bushes (Brambles)

The above photos of plants could be raspberry or blackberry. The one on the right is likely a raspberry plant. These plants are commonly classified as brambles.

How to tell that it's not poison ivy: Although these plants have the 3-leaflet pattern and the leaves are arranged alternately, they also have thorns. Thorns are the dead giveaway since poison ivy never has thorns. Thorns do not need to be large and there does not need to be a whole lot of them. Just a few thorns tells you it is not ivy.

Brambles branch out and look like bushes as they mature; they do not produce vines or tendrills like poison ivy, nor do they climb up things. Although they send out runners, they do not creep.

Another obvious giveaway with these plants is when they start to produce fruit. Poison ivy berries are white and look nothing like raspberries or blackberries.

Fragrant Sumac

I have to admit this one threw me for a loop. It was growing at the edge of the woods, was low to the ground, had 3 leaflets arranged alternately, and no thorns. The leaves even looked like poison ivy leaves that I've seen before.

How to tell that it's not poison ivy: What finally gave it away was the small, fuzzy red berry (see the photo on the right). Poison ivy has white berries and they are never fuzzy, so this told me the plant could not be poison ivy.

It also helped that I knew poison ivy was currently in bloom and none of the ivy plants had produced berries yet. Sometimes it helps to know the season a plant blooms and produces fruit (although admittedly most people couldn't care less when poison ivy blooms).

Fragrant Sumac is not poisonous, so do not be confused by the name "sumac" - it is not the same as poison sumac.

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